Homeschool Labs: What You Don't Know Might Hurt You
Updated: Aug 2, 2019
"High schools near me don't even do real labs anymore. They're all virtual. Why should I spend the money on lab supplies?"
"Does my child need to do Biology labs if she's not going into a science field?"
"How many hours of labs count as a 'lab science'?"
These are ongoing questions that pop up in homeschool Facebook groups all the time. And knowing the answers to these questions can mean the difference between a college acceptance and a rejection. All of these questions require a little bit of- you guessed it- research. Who has time for that?!
I do. Ok, really I don't (because I should probably be folding clothes or making dinner, or any number of other things) but I'm here for you. So, go grab that second cup of coffee, relax, and read on...
Question 1: How many hours of lab do I need for a "lab science course"?
Answer: 30 hours is a good goal, but this can vary.
Rationale/Research: The HSLDA website recommends that a high school "academic" course (such as history or algebra) should be a total of 150 hours. They also recommend that a "lab science" course be 180 hours, so logically, that means that the 30-hour difference would be for labs. Using this model, labs account for 16% of the coursework.
My second reference for this is a college lab science course. In college, science courses usually do 3 hours of lecture per one lab, which is often far longer than 1 hour. According to this format, labs account for at least 25% of the total course. This is unreasonable for most high school students, but it's valuable to lead them in this direction so they're adequately prepared.
Not every minute of 'lab' needs to be spent handling glassware.
The third point of reference is my experience in public school classrooms. Despite public opinion to the contrary, all the public school teachers I've worked with use labs about every week or week and a half. With a 180 day school year, this means labs or hands-on activities occur roughly 20 or 30 times per year.
Keep in mind, though, if this number seems anxiety-inducing, that your child will be using these hours for all aspects of the lab. That includes any research, writing, or questions that coincide with the lab. Not every minute of 'lab' needs to be spent handling glassware.
Question 2: Aren't virtual labs just as good as hands-on (wet) labs? Why spend money on supplies when you don't need to?
Answer: Sometimes, but certainly not always. The best lab science courses use a combination of both.
Rationale/Research: This is a hotly contested subject, with science teachers seemingly on one side of the debate and homeschooling parents on the other. Based on several studies I've read, however, here are some things to consider:
- Virtual labs are designed to have a fixed situation to model for students. This removes uncertainty from the experiment. As a parent, this seems preferable, but it also removes possibility for students to learn from their mistakes.
- Virtual labs and simulations are preferred when wet labs are either impossible (in cases of internal anatomy, for example) or when wet labs are unreasonably time-consuming.
Additionally, some students may have ethical reasons for not completing hands-on dissections.
- Students that complete only virtual labs may have slightly lower gains in comprehension and motivation. In other words, students enjoy and understand concepts better when virtual labs are not used exclusively.
- The College Board strongly recommends that students in AP Biology use laboratory investigations that are designed and analyzed on their own. This requires the use of wet labs.
Several studies come to the same conclusion, however: The use of both virtual and wet labs leads to higher student comprehension of concepts. For example, the use of virtual microscope labs can provide students with clearer images than they can create on their own, but the process of physically preparing a slide helps students connect the microscopic images to the structure as a whole. In other words, they don't understand what they're looking at unless they can see where it came from. That's why in my online Biology course, students always have the option to complete the lab at home or watch a video demonstration, and each unit has additional links to virtually explore the concepts.
As a parent, I completely understand the desire to be frugal when purchasing resources for your child, but as a teacher, I have seen the "light bulb click" when students use hands-on labs. Don't put your student at a disadvantage unless absolutely necessary. If money's tight, share resources and supplies with another family or make your own group.
Question 3: Does my child even need a lab science course?
Answer: It depends on your child's future plans.
Rationale/Research: If your child has the desire to go to college, even for a non-science major, you will likely need lab science credits. I would strongly suggest that you speak to the admissions office of any prospective universities and see whether a "lab science" needs to be designated on your transcript for acceptance. It's possible that the college will simply believe that your child did labs because it's on their transcript. If you need to prove that your science course included labs, you usually can provide the curriculum that you used or have your child keep a lab notebook with notes, procedures, and/or photos of the labs used. Additionally, a "lab science" course does not mean that your child has to write a formal lab report for each experiment. Sometimes, there are simply observations to make or questions to answer. There is no standardized formula for analyzing lab results, so don't worry about meeting some magic lab report quota.
"Lab Science" doesn't mean that your child has to write a formal lab report for every experiment.
If your child is definitely not pursuing college, please check with your state's homeschooling requirements. If "lab science" isn't specifically listed as a requirement, feel free to use the flexibility you've been given as a homeschooling parent and do what's easiest and best for your child.
Like I said, just relax. Labs are supposed to be fun for both you and your student. It's high school science, not rocket science.